Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge was magical in so many respects. From the traditional 6 a.m. wakeup call, which for the first time included fireworks, Indianapolis Motor Speedway had one of its best days, with fans arriving on Memorial Day weekend for the first time in two years and the weather nearly idyllic.
The 105th Running of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” did its part, too. The 33 drivers executed a flawless start, settling some four-wide disputes before the first turn. The fastest “500” on record – 190.690 mph -- was safe, had only two incidents and saw a thrilling late-race shootout between a legend and two youngsters.
And the celebration that followed? Well, let’s just say it was as memorable as the grand old facility has ever witnessed. Surely, A.J. Foyt winning his fourth “500” in 1977 was wildly popular, capped by a ride around the oval with track owner Tony Hulman, who passed away later that year. Those who were on hand for NASCAR’s inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994 remember how Jeff Gordon was honored for that historic stock car victory, and Tony Stewart’s first Brickyard win in 2005 was emotional.
But it’s likely every throat was lumped by Helio Castroneves’ reaction to finally achieving his fourth victory. The way he sprinted to the fence near the starter’s stand for a signature climb. Watching him postpone the ride to victory lane to run down the front straightway. The manner in which friends, former teammates and rivals embraced him as if they themselves had won. Who knew, for example, that 45-year-old Juan Pablo Montoya could jump so high into Castroneves’ arms or that Mario Andretti would kiss him on the head?
And it did not go unnoticed that NBC’s broadcast wisely stayed with the celebration all the way through it.
There is so much to unpack from that glorious day that it’s beneficial that the next NTT INDYCAR SERIES race, the Chevrolet Grand Prix of Detroit, is a weekend later than usual. As we wait for that doubleheader June 12-13 at the Belle Isle circuit, let’s consider where the sport stands.
Is it possible that 135,000 people in a single facility has never looked so good? Even with precautionary spacing built in, IMS gave the world a healthy, post-pandemic feel, and one can only imagine how much noise would have been generated had there been a full house.
As it was, Castroneves had this collection in full throat as he directed their chants of his name. Many danced in their seats, some even climbing portions of the fence as he was taken on a victory lap around the 2.5-mile oval.
The festiveness was present from the green flag, too, with early roars for 21-year-old Colton Herta taking the lead in the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda from pole sitter and 2008 winner Scott Dixon as they approached Turn 3 for the first time at speed. Less than a minute later, the eruption was for 20-year-old Rinus VeeKay taking the lead in the No. 21 Bitcoin Chevrolet from Herta on Lap 2.
The volume grew even higher when Indiana’s own Conor Daly took the lead for the first time in his “500” career on Lap 50 in the No. 47 U.S. Air Force Chevrolet.
The race featured 361 passes for position, 13 leaders and 35 lead changes. It was as if Roger Penske’s “Drivers, start your engines” had literally been taken as a command!
There was drama as the engines of Dixon and 2016 winner Alexander Rossi stalled on pit road due to low fuel levels, and disappointment when Graham Rahal’s left rear wheel came off following a pit stop, sending his car hard into the Turn 2 SAFER Barrier.
In the end, it appeared to be Alex Palou’s race to lose, only to have it taken from the second-year, 24-year-old driver by a 46-year-old Castroneves making his 21st start. Palou later said he might have shown his hand too soon in the No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda; Castroneves agreed.
Another Indy Legend Cemented
Castroneves had been in late-race duels before, most memorably in 2014 when Ryan Hunter-Reay beat him to the finish line by .0600 of a second, the second closest in race history. The Brazilian was quick to say the experience of those near misses helped him in this one, and he executed the winning move in the No. 06 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda beginning on Lap 199.
Of course, Castroneves’ fourth “500” victory cemented his status as a “500” legend, tying Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears in a club like no other in motorsports. That all three of those men were on hand to witness the performance of the new member made it even more special.
Castroneves has won the race with Oldsmobile, Chevrolet and Honda, in multiple types of chassis, and with and without an aeroscreen in what is arguably the most competitive era of the sport. He also has finished second on three occasions.
The win also was significant in terms of INDYCAR SERIES history. Now with 31 career wins, Castroneves is tied with Paul Tracy and Dario Franchitti for 10th place, and his gap between first and most recent victories – 21 years apart – ranks with some of the all-time greats.
There could be more wins to come, too. Castroneves’ current arrangement with Meyer Shank Racing has him competing in five more races this season – Nashville, the Indianapolis road race, Portland, Laguna Seca and Long Beach – and now, as an Indy winner, there might be more. As excited as Michael Shank and Jim Meyer were after winning their first race as car owners, it’s possible they’re already drafting a contract for Castroneves to be with them in next year’s “500.”
“Drive for Five” has a nice ring to it.
Not a Celebration for Everyone
While everyone seemed to be happy for Castroneves, not every competitor left IMS upbeat. Start with Rahal, who not only finished 32nd but had a car with significant damage.
Several drivers had cold brake issues entering pit road, led by Stefan Wilson, who lost control of his No. 25 LOHLA SPORT/Cusick Motorsports Honda and hit the inside pit wall. That situation created the extended caution that led to Dixon and Rossi running too low on fuel, and both veterans lost a lap to the leaders. Dixon got his lap back and finished 17th in the No. 9 PNC Bank Grow Up Great Honda; Rossi never did and finished 29th in the No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS/AutoNation Honda, two laps down.
In all, eight drivers were sent to the rear of the pack for taking service with the pits officially closed on that caution between Laps 34 and 45.
Hunter-Reay, Will Power and Max Chilton were penalized for speeding on pit road. Like Power, Simona De Silvestro spun without damage near the entrance to pit road. Others just didn’t have the speed they had earlier in the month. Indy always has one winner and 32 who do not.
With the “500” worth double the usual number of series points, there was a shakeup to the standings. Palou, who finished second, overtook Dixon for the lead, and the Spaniard will have a 36-point advantage heading to the Detroit event June 12-13.
Pato O’Ward’s fourth-place finish drew him within a point of Dixon for third in the standings, with Simon Pagenaud jumping three positions – from seventh to fourth – with his third-place finish at IMS. 2016 series champion Pagenaud is 47 points in arrears of Palou.
Others within 100 points of the lead: Rinus VeeKay (minus-57 points after finishing eighth), Josef Newgarden (minus-64 points after finishing 12th), Colton Herta (minus-94 points after finishing 16th) and Rahal (minus-100 points after finishing 32nd.)
With two races, Detroit is a double-points weekend. After that, eight races remain.
A Balanced Detroit Field
Usually, race weekends have a driver or two who tend to rise above the rest, but that hasn’t been the case at Belle Isle, a 14-turn, 2.35-mile temporary circuit that didn’t host a race last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Seven drivers expected in next weekend’s field have won races there.
Newgarden and Dixon were the most recent winners, in 2019, with Dixon scoring his second win in as many years and third overall. Rahal won both races in 2017. Sebastien Bourdais (2015 and ’16) and Power (2014 and ’16) also have won twice.
Pagenaud (2013) and Hunter-Reay (2018) are the other drivers to have won at this circuit. Castroneves won in 2014, but he is not expected to participate.
Rossi has twice been a Detroit pole sitter, and he finished second in the Saturday race in 2019. Marcus Ericsson finished second in the Sunday race two years ago.
Parity has been the word of the season, too, with the six races won by six different drivers representing five different teams. Only Chip Ganassi Racing has won twice (with Palou and Dixon).